Spoilers ahead for the Season 4 premiere of The Good Doctor on ABC, called "Frontline Part 1."
The first major network TV medical drama of fall 2020 made its premiere with the Season 4 launch of The Good Doctor, and "Frontline Part 1" immersed the doctors of St. Bonaventure in the COVID-19 pandemic. The Good Doctor will hardly be the only medical drama that will dive into COVID, with Chicago Med on NBC and Grey's Anatomy on ABC launching in just over a week, not to mention those that will premiere in 2021. After seeing the fantastic Season 4 premiere, however, I'm ready to argue that The Good Doctor set the standard for medical dramas handling COVID.
The Good Doctor didn't start with a major time jump to take us to the staff at St. Bonaventure already fighting the virus, but rather opened with what seemed like a woman's bad case of the flu on February 26, one week before the California state of emergency. Viewers going into the episode had to know that something bad was going to happen as soon as the woman coughed into her hands and then dropped money in a tip jar, but nobody on the show knew that, or how bad things would get, and the result was a remarkable hour of television.
The Season 4 premiere took viewers through the early days of the pandemic and the effects on primarily three patients. Unlike the doctors finding miracle cures and pulling off impossible surgeries like they might have in seasons past, they couldn't even keep up with the changing symptoms and presentations. They were frequently wrong, but not because they made mistakes. They just didn't have the information and resources they needed. One of those three major patients passed away by the end of the episode, and it was the woman whose symptoms had originally been dismissed as the flu.
Now all eyes are going to be on the young mother whose baby was delivered while she was on a ventilator and the man whose wife has tried to virtually be by his side every step of the way. By the end of the hour, Morgan -- who is no longer a surgeon after damaging her hands at the end of Season 3 -- and nurse Deena along with a lot of hospital passersby in the non-COVID wing of St. Bonaventure were exposed to COVID by a man who initially seemed to be suffering from diverticulitis. And yet, this wasn't an episode packed with despair.
When a COVID patient got to go home, hospital workers lined the hallway to cheer and Kool and the Gang's "Celebration" blasted. Park moved into Shaun's apartment, giving him a place to stay and both of them some company. Claire and Lim bonded over their shared grief and were healing. Lea was lovely, with everything from trying to help Shaun deal with their distance to helping him fix his masks so they didn't hurt his ears. There were bright spots in the darkness of the disease they didn't understand.
Still, The Good Doctor didn't shy away from the repercussions of the doctors going full-steam-ahead for 18 hours per day. Claire was frustrated, and fell to a low enough point that she either imagined or hallucinated Dr. Melendez. Lim lost more and more of her poise and patience as the fight dragged on and on. Shaun missed Lea and didn't handle the separation well. Dr. Glassman's cabin fever led to conflict with his wife. None of them knew what was happening or when it was going to end, but there was hope.
By starting quietly and building to the challenges of quarantine and PPE and limited resources through the eyes of Shaun and Co., The Good Doctor's focus was on character over COVID, and for me, that's what medical dramas need to deliver when it comes to the pandemic. We don't need The Good Doctor's version of COVID and Chicago Med's version of COVID and Grey's Anatomy's version of COVID before getting into New Amsterdam's and The Resident's versions of COVID in 2021. We need to see the human responses more than anything else, and the character development and reactions make the pandemic episodes worth getting invested in.
As somebody who wasn't particularly looking forward to seeing fictional COVID situations on top of the real-life pandemic in multiple medical dramas this season, The Good Doctor just proved that TV can cover the pandemic without telling the same story we've seen on the news over the past several months. "Frontline Part 1" was about the characters dealing with COVID, not COVID controlling the characters. If other medical dramas can do the same, then perhaps viewers won't be in for gloom and doom of the pandemic wreaking havoc in primetime.